Bacon is best known for his depictions of popes, crucifixions and portraits of close friends. His abstracted figures are typically isolated in geometrical cage like spaces, set against flat, nondescript backgrounds. Bacon says that he sees images “in series,” and his work typically focuses on a single subject for sustained periods, often in triptych or diptych formats. His output can be broadly described as sequences or variations on a single motif, beginning with the 1930s Pablo Picasso-informed Furies, moving on to the 1940s male heads isolated in rooms or geometric structures, the 1950s screaming popes, and the mid-to-late 1950s animals and lone figures, the 1960s portraits of friends, the nihilistic 1970s self-portraits, and the cooler more technical 1980s late works.
Bacon takes up painting in his late 30s, having drifted as an interior decorator, bon vivant and gambler. He says that his artistic career was delayed because he spent too long looking for subject matter that could sustain his interest. His breakthrough comes with the 1944 triptych Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, which seals his reputation as a uniquely bleak chronicler of the human condition. From the mid-1960s he mainly produces portraits of friends and drinking companions, either as single or triptych panels. Following the 1971 suicide of his lover, George Dyer, his art becomes more sombre, inward-looking and preoccupied with the passage of time and death. The climax of this later period is marked by masterpieces, including Study for Self-Portrait (1982) and Study for a Self-Portrait—Triptych, 1985–86.
Despite his bleak existentialist outlook, solidified in the public mind through his articulate and vivid series of interviews with David Sylvester, Bacon in person is highly engaging and charismatic, articulate, well-read and unapologetically gay. He is a prolific artist, but nonetheless spends many of the evenings of his middle age eating, drinking and gambling in London‘s Soho with like-minded friends such as Lucian Freud, John Deakin, Muriel Belcher, Henrietta Moraes, Daniel Farson, Tom Baker, and Jeffrey Bernard.
After Dyer’s suicide he largely distances himself from this circle, and while his social life is still active and his passion for gambling and drinking continues, he settles into a platonic and somewhat fatherly relationship with his eventual heir, John Edwards. The art critic Robert Hughes describes him as “the most implacable, lyric artist in late 20th-century England, perhaps in all the world” and along with Willem de Kooning as “the most important painter of the disquieting human figure in the 50’s of the 20th century.” Bacon is the subject of two Tate retrospectives and a major showing in 1971 at the Grand Palais.
While on holiday in Madrid in 1992, Francis Bacon is admitted to the Handmaids of Maria, a private clinic, where he is cared for by Sister Mercedes. His chronic asthma, which has plagued him all his life, has developed into a respiratory condition and he is unable to talk or breathe very well. He dies of a heart attack on April 28, 1992, after attempts to resuscitate him fail.
Bacon bequeaths his estate, then valued at £11 million, to John Edwards and Brian Clark, executors. In 1998 the director of the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin secures the donation of the contents of Bacon’s chaotic studio at 7 Reece Mews, South Kensington. The contents of his studio are moved and reconstructed in the gallery. Most of his works remain in the Hugh Lane in Dublin today.
Since his death his reputation and market value have grown steadily, and his work is among the most acclaimed, expensive and sought-after. In the late 1990s a number of major works, previously assumed destroyed, including early 1950s popes and 1960s portraits, reemerge to set record prices at auction. In 2013 his Three Studies of Lucian Freud sets the world record as the most expensive piece of art sold at auction.